Filmy Ripples – Rise & fall of vamps (Part 2)

By P.V. Gopalakrishnan

Then the villis transformed into what were known as ‘vamps’. The dictionary definition of a vamp is “a woman who is conscious of and makes use of being attractive to men in order to get what she wants”, akin to a honey trap. In films, vamps somewhat resembled this description.

The vicious vamps curated by Hindi cinema were all repulsively seductive, and in short vamps were vain, symbolizing everything an ideal Indian woman was not. Instead, they profiled what dangerous women were like, in a country where women of virtue were revered equated to Almighty.

In Hindi we had vamps played by Bindu, Helen, Vaishali, Padma Khanna, Jaishree.T, Aruna Irani & Kalpana Iyer, wearing coloured wigs, contact lenses & skimpy dresses.

Talking of Helen who was a pioneer in this tribe, she was born in Burma to an Anglo Indian father & a Burmese mother, but migrated to India 1n 1942 on the invasion of Japanese army of Burma. She became a hit in Hindi screen with her item number “mera naam chin chin choo’ in ‘Howrah Bridge’ (1958). Immediately, the same year, the Tamil movie ‘Uthama Puthiran’ imported her into Kodambakkam, as she danced in the famed hit number ‘Yaradi nee mohini’, along with Sivaji Ganesan. She has since appeared in nearly seven hundred films with her item numbers in vamp roles. Her song & dance sequence in ‘Piya thu ab tho aaja’ song in Caravan (1971) is evergreen.

Here is a ‘club dance’ number from “Deiva Piravi” (1960).

The film ‘Karuppu Panam’ (1964) produced by Kannadasan had an ‘club dance’ sequence in the song ‘Aada varalaam’ filmed on Sheela, in tight (and perhaps even ill fitting) western outfits, though she already was a busy main heroine then in Malayalam. This song, set in western genre became an immortal hit.

Here is another instance of ‘club dance’ in the song ‘Uravinil fifty fifty’ where Rajeswari lays a honey trap for AVM Rajan in the film ‘Galatta Kalyanam’ (1968).

In our own Tamil screen we had an array of vamps, to name the prominent ones Jothilakshmy, Vijayalalitha, Jayamalini, Anuradha, CID Sakunthala, Disco Santhi, Silk Smitha.

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A still from the Film Pattanathu Rajakkal of SILK SMITH with Vijayakanth.
PC: From the Archives of TCRC

The vamps started donning wigs & minis as they danced, seducing the Hero in our films too, a departure from the run-of-the-mill villis with their rolling eyes & a vicious tongues, as seen in this video from the film “Sorgam” (1970) with Vijayalalitha & Sivaji Ganesan.

These vamps were either ‘one dance’ item number girls or some parallel running characters in the storyline.

Then Silk Smitha, introduced to Tamil screen by Vinu Chakravarthi, became the perennial item number girl and never came out of her image as femme fatale. Disco Shanti, Smitha’s contemporary also settled for the “item girl” tag. Here is a visual of the song ‘Nethu rathiri yamma’ song featuring the most popular vamp character playing Silk Smitha with Kamal Hassan in ‘Sakalakala Vallavan’ (1982).

But in due course, these specialist dancers meant for such vamp roles were slowly losing their relevance, partly owing to the subjects as well as the way films were made, as even new generation of actors took the center stage.

And a stage came when the heroines themselves started doing such dance numbers, sending home the breed of club dancing actors homeward, in retirement.

There was this slow acceptance that lewd lyrics & suggestive movements were no more in the exclusive realm of those who were once labeled as vamps and that the respected heroine could do it all.

This mindset of cine goers perhaps stemmed from the overall changes the current generation has witnessed & accepted arising out of education, liberated mindset, globalization etc.

As such the vamp has died a natural death in our cinemas, as the perception of them as a hugely negative clan and holding them in a water tight genre has changed along with the emergence of realizing a ‘vamp’ character is generally engrained in every ordinary living individual. That is why we see, in the soap operas on TV, normal woman characters being over dramatized as mega ‘villi’s with their ever scheming negative plans. This has becoming the major sell out of today’s TV serials!

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Filmy Ripples : Movie Studios (Part 2)

By P.V.Gopalakrishnan

I have seen from the Kodambakkam High Road side, the mammoth sets put up within Gemini Studios, about the same place where today Park Hotel stands, for ‘Bhama Vijayam’. It was a two-story ‘building’ where the story unfolded. Similarly I have seen, from outside, a large Big Top of a Circus being put up in AVM for ‘Parakkum Paavai’.

All these studios were virtual dreamlands where the celluloid industry made its ware. There was an element of fascination & grandeur about them. The studios were products of necessity as films could be made only in controlled & capsuled spaces, where only production was technically possible. In the black-and-white era of those days when the film ran at slow speed requiring abundant light, the Director and Cinematographer had to exercise extraordinary judgment & vivid imagination.

A busy film studio was a beehive of activities as technicians, set property guys, lighting equipment handlers all moving about in feverish activity, even as the artistes applied grease to their face in preparation for their day’s shoot in humble green rooms, there being no private Caravans owned by any big star then.

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Image from Cine Art Review Magazine 1937. PC: From the archives of TCRC

In the humble recording theatres in these studios, dating back to pre-stereo era, many a musician huddled up in small recording rooms, amidst running power & audio cables, to produce the ever charming film music that we adore to date. Veteran Music Directors such as Emani Sankara Sastry, Parthasarathy, C.R.Subburaman, S.M.Subbiah Naidu, T.G.Lingappa, Sudarshanam, G.Ramanathan, T.R.Pappa, S.V.Venkataraman, S.Rajeswara Rao, Parur Sundaram Iyer,  K.V.Mahadevan, MSV-TKR, S.Dakshinamurthy & Pandurangan swayed their baton in these Studios in collaboration with legendary lyricists like Papanasam Sivan, Kothamangalam Subbu, Thanjai Ramaiahdas, and Ku.Ma.Balasubramanyam.

While recording ‘Engey Nimmathi’ song for Puthiya Paravai, MSV-TKR team had to accommodate the large number of spill over musicians on to the outside lawns. In this song the Music Directors used huge musical ensemble comprising instruments such as Harp, Violins, Cello, Bass, Vibrofone, Bongos, Kettle Drums, Flutes, Castanet, Trumpets, Tuba, Trombone, Clarinet & Mandolin.

The early films of Black & White era too had brief spells of outdoor shoots. But sets were more predominant as a rule owing to limitations.

Gradually the trend was increasingly towards outdoor shoots, away from the confines of the mighty studios, as evidenced by Kathalikka Neramillai (1964). Most of the outdoor locales of this iconic wholesome comedy were shot at Azhiyar Reservoir Dam, some sixty five kilo meters away from Coimbatore, located in the picturesque foothills of Valparai, in the Anamalai Hills of the Western Ghats.

Similarly, Karnan was notably the first Tamil film to be shot extensively in locales at Jaipur & Kurukshetra. The Art Director Ganga of Karnan got huge chariots made in Chennai and shipped them to Kurukshetra, where the war sequences were filmed in out door. With Central Government’s permission, real cavalry and infantry men from the Indian Army were deployed in the battles scenes at Kurukshetra.

Lobby Card of Karnan (1964) .Image courtesy The Cinema Resource Centre.

A lobby card  from the film Karnan featuring the chariot PC: From the archives of TCRC

The cameras have since become smarter and often airborne on drones. The Information Era has changed the very way films are made. Today, most of these mighty shooting spots called Studios have disappeared one by one, as Technology has made a paradigm shift in film making, which tendered  those mammoth sized studios redundant. The sophisticated equipment and availability of alternative resources enable film makers to shoot at any place of their choice. Thus the brick ‘n’ mortar studios of huge sizes lost their popularity.

In contrast, today the films are made about everywhere, ranging from the rural hamlets to urban slums, from deserts to highways, from cricket pitches to Pizzeria.

Several film studios in Chennai have downed their shutters and their vast areas have turned over to real-estate development. Many got transformed into hospitals, hotels, multiplexes, colleges, wedding halls and the like.

Similarly, the Bombay’s landmark studios such as RK, Mehboob, Filmistan & Famous too have lost their sheen.

In fact, by 1970s that filmmakers slowly ventured out of the studios of Kodambakkam, to shoot in outdoors and actual locales, abandoning the sets. The bougainvillea creepers, the ceiling dropped pigeons, ornate fountains of the make-believe sets were gone, with ‘as-a-matter-of-fact’ outdoor shoots setting in. A huge tribe of set making carpenters, painters, decorators, prop suppliers were all gone with the sets. These were the very people who feasted cine-goers with the celebrated visuals of the black & white era with their enormous sets. They made us relish the clever make over to the mythology and historical subjects of films. Who could forget the sets of Chandralekha or Avvaiyar? Even much later, the sets of Veera Pandiya Kattabomman, Karnan and the like provided us the much of visual enchantment.

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A photograph from the film Avvaiyar. PC: From the archives of TCRC

The Gemini twins, in their ‘langoti’s, blowing the bugle at the corner entrance of erstwhile Gemini Studios still haunt us, by their sheer absence there anymore.

But change is unchangeable!

Filmy Ripples: Movie Studios (Part 1)

By P.V.Gopalakrishnan

Once in my high school vacation, a guy in our friend circle motivated us for a trip to the far away AVM studio to witness a film shoot, on the pretext one of his relatives worked there. Our long bus trip to Puliyur and beyond made a bunch of us cross a lot of fields and Aubergine cultivated lands (you know, Kodambakkam Kathirikkai was very popular in those days), till we reached our dream destination. But our starry eyed expectations were soon blown off by the studio sentry who, forthwith, denied entry to our small group of school kids.

Today, the word ‘Kollywood’, coined after Bollywood, would refer the whole hub encompassing Vadapalani to Kodambakkam to Saligramam, the nerve center of Tamil film industry & TV. It is in this topography, the mighty film studios such as AVM & Vijaya Vahini once clustered & grew with vast facilities for film production. They had innumerable shooting floors, with Vijaya Vahini having as many as thirteen. Of course we had also, by exception, film studios spilled over to other areas of Madras too, such as the mighty Gemini in Mount Road, Venus in Alwarpet, Meenakshi Cinetone turned Neptune turned Satya in Adyar and Newtone, Citadel in Purasawakkam.

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An Ad for Newtone Studios in Kalki Deepavali Malar 1942 PC: From the archives of TCRC

Those days, before the advent of Kodambakkam over bridge in 1965, there was a rickety railway level crossing at busy Kodambakkam, choking with heavy traffic. The gate closed with every suburban service passing. The ever hungry star gazers hanged about this level crossing to catch a glimpse of their favourite stars, lurking inside their car, waiting for the gate to open.

Besides Madras, there were also few well-known studios in other cities; Mr. T.R.Sundaram’s Modern Theatres Studio at Salem, Sreeramulu Naidu’s Pakshiraja Studios, Neptune Studios & Central Studios, all in Coimbatore.

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An Ad for brought out by Modern Theatres for the film Manonmani in Kalki Deepavali Malar 1942 PC: From the archives of TCRC

Prior to production of films in Madras State, some films were produced in Calcutta & Pune. M.S. Subbulakshmi starred Savithri (1941), which had as many as eighteen songs penned by Papanasam Sivan, was produced in New Theatres Studio of Calcutta.

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An Ad for the film Savitri in Ananda Vikatan Deepavali Malar 1941 PC: From the archives of TCRC

As per the Film Historian Randor Guy, the Madras Electric Supply Corporation (MESC) had built a powerhouse in Kodambakkam area during the World War II times, but without many takers for the energy. The film studios were enthused to set up shops here. Kodambakkam soon saw several studios coming up such as AVM, Vijaya, Rohini, Bharani, Vikram, Paramount (later called Majestic), Golden, Vasu, and Karpagam.

Much before AVM Productions was launched, Sri Valli (1945), directed by A.V.Meyyappan himself along with A.T.Krishnaswamy, was made by AVM under the banner of Pragathi Studios. This movie catapulted A.V.Meiyappan to fame.

AVM Studios was first located at Karaikudi, before shifting to Kodambakkam. The Karaikudi studio was made of thatched roof structures and stood at Devakottai Rastha. ’Nam Iruvar’, released before Indian Independence & which became a thundering success, was made in Karaikudi based AVM studios. This super hit film extensively portrayed the hopes and aspirations of a nation on the brink of independence.  Only after this did AVM move his studio from Karaikudi to Kodambakkam.

 

AVM Studios, in its grand annals, have had many a landmark event associated with Tamil Film Industry.

National Pictures and AVM Productions jointly produced the debut film of Sivaji Ganesan ‘Parasakthi’, though it did not begin well for Sivaji Ganesan, who was on a princely monthly remuneration of Two Hundred Fifty Rupees for the film. In fact, at one stage, Meiyappan, dissatisfied with Ganesan’s “thin” body frame wanted him replaced. But, ironically, time wanted to prove this very Ganesan as an Institution by himself. So, AVM’s partner in the project, Perumal, insisted that Ganesan be retained. But the initial scenes involved many retakes with Ganesan. Rest was history, with the world acknowledging him as Nadigar Thilakam.

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A plaque commemorating the 50th year of Parasakthi at AVM studios at the very spot Sivaji Ganesan said his first dialogue ‘Success’ . PC: http://www.rediff.com

AVM’s “Vazhkai” (1949) was the first film to be shot at the new AVM Studio at Chennai. The film starred T.R. Ramachandran and Vyjayanthimala, which was the latter’s debut movie in Tamil when she was a teenager. When M. V. Raman, who wrote ‘Vazhkai’, spotted Vyjayanthimala performing a Bharata Natyam concert at Gokhale Hall in Madras, he was impressed by her talent & beauty and recommended her to the boss Meiyappan.

V. Venkatraman (SVV) was ‘found’ by A.V.Meyyappa Chettiar as a man in distress at Cubbon Park, Bangalore & gave him the break in “Nanda Kumar” as Music Director. SVV became a major name in music scene & scored soul-stirring music for over two hundred films in various languages. Even MSV & TKR worked for him at some point in time.

C.N.Annadurai is said to have written the three hundred pages of screen play for the film “Oar Iravu” in a single night camping at AVM studios, for a whopping sum (at those times) of Rupees Ten Thousand!

It was only at AVM Studios the living legend S.Janaki gave her audition in 1957 before Music Directors Sudarashanam & Govardhanam.

Vijaya Studios made “Maya Bazaar” (1957) which was critically acclaimed and considered as one of the enduring classics of Indian Cinema. It was touted as a landmark achievement in Indian film’s cinematography, art direction and visual effects with the technology available at the time.

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The entrance to Vijaya Vauhini studios. PC : http://www.frontline.in

 

Gemini Studios, owned by Movie Moghul S.S.Vasan, had a history. The Veteran Film Director K. Subrahmanyam (Father of Denseuse Padma Subramanyam) who made some iconic movies including ‘Thyaga Bhoomi’ (1938) was having a Studio at the same premises since 1937. But owing to a major inferno the property was totally burnt down. In 1941, S.S.Vasan bought out the premises in a distress sale & built his own studio & named it Gemini Studios. It is said that Vasan, who was a fan of horse racing, named the studio after one of his favourite horses. Gemini Studios produced some of the iconic movies such as Nandanar, Mangamma Sabatham, Miss Malini, Chandralekha, Avvaiyar, Vanjikottai Valiban to name a few.

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An ad for Gemini Pictures Circuit with its distinct logo  (the company that bought over the studio from Subramanyam and renamed it Gemini Studios). Published in Anada Vikatan Deepavali Malar 1939. PC: From the archives of TCRC

                                                                                                                                                             (to be continued)